computer with brushes and paintsSome new mothers worry about when they’ll get to sleep through the night; I worried about when I’d get to write a novel. I’d always figured that I’d write a book some day, but now that I had a kid, would some day ever come?

For me, the answer lay online. Not in an online writing group: I felt far too protective of my writing to consider sharing it with people I’d never met. But I was brave enough to reach out to other local writers by using the web to connect.  I found a couple of other writer friends who liked the idea of starting a creative writing group for people like us: people who earned a living as professional writers or communicators, but wanted an outlet for personal writing. I created a simple web site that explained the purpose of the group, with an application form for would-be members. Once we had found our fellow writers, we used a Yahoo Group to run an e-mail list that let us schedule meetings, circulate drafts and store files.

Whether your creativity takes the form of a solitary activity like writing or painting, or is intrinsically collaborative (like theater or filmmaking) the web can help you connect to the people, resources and ideas that foster your creativity. Creativity often demands social connection: for peer support, for feedback, for knowledge, for collaborators.

The social web offers a lot of ways to capture, hone and feed your creativity:

  1. Find your medium. YouTube not withstanding, the web is still a text dominant medium. Blogging makes it easy for writers to find a creative outlet online; photographers have Flickr, and filmmakers have YouTube. But there are lots of creative projects that don’t fit inside these boxes, so you’ll need to get even more creative in finding your online voice. Take pictures of your canvases; shoot a video of someone interacting with your installation piece; film your play, tape your song, make your own music video.
  2. Engage another hemisphere. I rely on my netbook for writing – but I rely on my iPhone to spark my creativity. Not by serving up poetry or inspirational stories: by turning off the very parts of my brain that are key to my writing. When I hit a wall, I pull out my iPhone and plug into a game of Flight Control: an utterly uncreative, dangerously addictive game that involves landing planes on a tiny landing strip. A few minutes of Flight Control is so absolutely absorbing that it lets my creative neurons recharge until they’re ready to fire up again.
  3. Collaborate. My first adult forays into fiction writing happened spontaneously online. An online chat with a pal turned into an extended riff on a “what if” scenario, and within an hour we’d written our way into a story. Over the following weeks it grew into a manuscript, albeit one that we never published or even edited. But even in raw form, that collaborative writing process reconnected me with my writer self. I was far braver as part of a team than I was able to be solo; by collaborating online, I rediscovered the joy of writing and recommitted to writing on my own.
  4. Keep an inspiration file.“Things that aren’t even cats”. It’s a line from a Malcolm In the Middle episode that has become our internal label for “none of the above”. I’m not sure why we find it so compelling, but somewhere in that phrase lies the kernel of a story about organizing ideas online. And when the inspiration for that story hits, I’ll be ready, because I am religious about maintaining a list of story ideas in Evernote, an application that keeps my notes synced between my mac, my netbook and my iphone. Wherever I am, I’m always ready to jot down an idea or retrieve one.
  5. Talk it out. Sometimes the mere act of writing something down strips it of its passion – or feels like too big an obstacle. Text recognition services and software can help you brainstorm out loud, whether by writing full documents by voice, or just using a mobile service like Jott to make calls that will get transcribed and set back to you as notes.
  6. Relocate. When I want to do an intensive bit of writing, I have to get out of the house and out of the office. But I don’t need a quiet garret: I do best in a cafe with lots of light, and interesting people who aren’t too creeped out when I stare blankly into the middle distance that they happen to be sitting in. I’ve made it easy to dive into a day of cafe writing by buying a tiny, lightweight computer just for writing days; it’s always packed into a tiny backpack that’s ready to go with the essentials for a day of writing. (The essentials: computer, mouse, headset, advil, hand cream, nicorettes). And I use a couple of programs that ensure my writing machine can access any relevant notes on my primary computer: Evernote, which is my master notebook, and Dropbox, which lets me keep a folder full of files synchronized across computers.
  7. Find material. Artists are the world’s most incorrigible thieves. As anyone with a writer friend can tell you, everything is subject to appropriation: that quip you made at a party, the video of your first birthday party, the story of your most painful breakup. The social web liberates you from stealing from your friends’ lives, and opens the door on a world full of images, characters and experiences that are yours to borrow and embroider. Stay within the bounds of intellectual property law (i.e. no stealing someone else’s words, images or stories) and you can find all the real life material you need online.
  8. Remove distractions. The same computer I use for my creative projects also contains an endless series of distraction. My hard drive is never more organized than the day before a major writing process: I can procrastinate for hours by consolidating folders, renaming files and optimizing my software setup. To limit my techie procrastinations, I use a separate computer on writing days, and keep it as light as possible: I’ve deliberately minimized the number of software tools installed on my writing machine, and I use a low-powered computer that makes it hard for me to run distracting programs or do much geeking out. I also keep a separate, distraction-free account on my primary computer: if I want to write, I switch to my alternate login, which denies me access to the chat programs, email and files that would pull me out of writing brain and into work or geek brain.
  9. Expand your horizons. I’ve always been comfortable with words, and assumed that in some previous life I accepted the deal that my ability to write would come with an inability to draw a straight line with a ruler. My family is full of visual artists, but drawing stick figures appears to be the outside limit of my artistic capacity. Happily, I’ve discovered that online design doesn’t require the kind of eye-hand coordination that has always defied me: I’ve created photo collages, illustrative graphics and entire web page designs, and had a heck of a good time doing it. You may have a preferred medium, but trying out other forms of creative expression online – whether it’s making a movie, recording a song, or writing a poem – can help you discover other kinds of creativity in ways that fuel your primary creative commitments.

Are you an artist/geek — or a geek/artist? Or maybe even a techno-skeptic who has nonetheless found ways of harnessing technology to your creative self-expression? I’d love to hear about the  practices, tools and work habits that have helped you turn the social web into a tool for supporting your creativity.

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